Gardening Mu Nature Things My Garden Has Taught Me

The Clenched Fist of “NO!” – Deprivation, Abundance, Gratitude

There are times, sometimes a whole day or week, or maybe just moments in the day, when life feels like it is waving in our faces a large, hairy clenched fist of NO! or WAIT!: unable, or perhaps unwilling to meet our needs and wants. Our need for affection, reciprocity, self-expression, freedom to play and be creative. Our wanting to have an email answered asap, or for it to stop raining, or for a family member to show interest in us.

Whatever form this deprivation takes, however small or large, it doesn’t feel good. It’s also not uncommon for the clenched fist of NO! to move from the source of deprivation (the resistant, unyielding environment) to our inner-world, feeling like heartburn or haemorrhoids punitive in nature, as if we really are being fisted by someone or something. We might develop a masochistic taste for this experience, but on the whole we are averse to pain, seekers of pleasure, to hands that are open, welcoming, willing and wanting to clasp ours in theirs, leading the way, guiding us, accompanying us on our journey.

This winter of the soul takes on an anthropomorphic resonance as we head towards the dormant season as gardeners. Even though the icy frosts have yet to come, so much in the garden is already dragging, drooping, dying. The tomato bushes still have dots of colour to them, but it is a rancid, inedible red. The late-blooming Michaelmas Daisies of mid-October are now shrivelled, wasted, mortified.

Where does one look for abundance and plenitude when all we can see or feel is insufficiency and want?

One way is to actively seek out those places in the garden or our lives where there is prosperity, or at least comfortable adequacy. Turning purposefully away from the clenched fist of denial or refutation, not in an angry or dismissive way, but rather as if we might turn from a Henry Moore statue we’re no longer getting any pleasure from looking at, towards another piece in the sculpture park that might offer something we need or want. Or to a tree. Or a handful of seeds. Literally and metaphorically.

This is what I’ve been trying to do this week, working from the premise that next to, or under the clenched fist of withholding, of nix, there is always some kind of indulgence and gratification to be found. Maybe I’ve just got to get on my hands and knees and scrabble about in the dirt a while to find it.

Behold a pink chard plant grown wild and tangly from last summer, having developed a profuse, Medusa-like pink afro, now ready to harvest for its seeds. Hundreds of corky nubs which next year, and for many a year after that, will give me pink patches of good-to-look-at, good-to-eat loveliness.

Behold, from the withered husks of my Cosse Violette and Neckargold bean plants, two Amazon book-package loads of bean seeds. Jack, as we know, gave away the beloved family cow, Milky White, for far less. Seeds to plant, or put in soups. Seeds that feel cool and silky-smooth to hold, pleasurable and sensual objects in and of themselves.

Bruno Bettelheim in his psychoanalytic reading of this fairy tale sees Jack and The Beanstalk as a fable about how we might overcome our developmental oral stage, which is to say our utmost dependency on our caretaker’s breast/teat/hand, wrenching ourselves away from the comfort and safety that the source of this nourishment supplies. Compare the utter despair when Milky White stops giving us milk, the non-lactating breast or teat, to the clenched fist of NO or WAIT.

“Given all the dangers of regressing to orality”, writers Bettelheim, “here is another implied message of the Jack story: it was not at all bad that Milky White stopped giving milk. Had this not happened, Jack would not have gotten the seeds out of which the beanstalk grew. Orality thus not only sustains—when hung on to too long, it prevents further development; it even destroys, as does the orally fixated ogre.”

So how not to turn into orally fixated ogres ourselves?

The answer may lie in an old-fashioned virtue, which now in the updated language of positive psychology would be referred to as a “character strength”. The virtue/character strength is Gratitude. Recent research (Park et al., 2004) has shown that having a strongly developed sense of gratitude (alongside Hope, Zest, Love, and Curiosity – although gratitude alone works just fine too) is “substantially related to life satisfaction”.

Interestingly, in this same survey looking at the relationship between character strengths and life satisfaction among 5,299 adults, other virtues such as modesty and intellectual competencies (appreciation of beauty, creativity, judgement, and love of learning) were much more weakly associated with feeling good about ourselves and our lives.

This makes a lot of sense to me. My top character strengths (you can do a 15 minute survey here to find out yours) are love of learning, creativity, appreciation of beauty and excellence, perspective, curiosity, love and judgement.

Gratitude is number 19 out of 24 for me on this list (teamwork is number 24). Might gratitude better inoculate me/us against the clenched fist of NO? Was old Cicero right when he wrote more than 2000 years ago that “gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but a parent of all the others”?

The difficulty we face when turning up the dial on gratitude in our lives, notes Robert Emmons in a chapter entitled ‘Gratitude in Trying Times’, is that often when one part of us most need the benefits of this character strength, another part feels itself especially unwilling to apply it:

“It is relatively easy to feel grateful when good things are happening, and life is going the way we want it to. A much greater challenge is to be grateful when things are not going so well, and are not going the way we think they should. Anger, bitterness, and resentment seem to be so much easier, so much more a natural reaction in times like these.”

An important distinction might perhaps be made between having the faith to take the medicine we need and doing so, as opposed to feeling in the mood to do it.

As David Steindl-Reist writes: “”times that challenge us physically, emotionally, and spiritually may make it almost impossible for us to feel grateful. Yet, we can decide to live gratefully, courageously open to life in all its fullness. By living the gratefulness we don’t feel, we begin to feel the gratefulness we live.”

So if you’re up for trying to live the gratefulness you don’t feel in the hope that by doing so we’ll begin to feel the gratefulness we live, here’s Emmon’s 10 point plan for doing so.

And my version of this with a garden focus:

1) Keep a plan of everything you’ve got growing in the garden, and regularly reflect on the richness and variety of your plants, providing colour and interest every time you step out of your back door.

2) Remember the bad and harness the power of counterfactuals (things that haven’t happened, but could under differing circumstances): when it’s not raining or when you notice something lovely in the garden that you hadn’t seen before, call to mind the likelihood that it could equally be the other way round, appreciate that it isn’t!

3) Ask yourself 2 questions: What have I received from the garden today? What have I done for it?

4) Learn or write your own poem/prayer to the garden. Sing or recite it inside your garden and away from it. In the depths of winter, bring to mind the joys of spring and summer by whispering to yourself the poem below and luxuriating in the memories of summer days past, and those to come.


If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze

that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house

and unlatch the door to the canary’s cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,

a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies

seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking

a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,

releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage

so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting

into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.

-Billy Collins

Loss Nature Refuge Things My Garden Has Taught Me

The Garden as a Place of Refuge

For it is, primarily that (a place of refuge), and not just for me.

In the last week, a slightly emaciated OAP by the name of Bertie has spent every waking moment in my garden; every sleeping one too.

OAP, btw, stands for Old Age Pigeon. When I say pigeon, please don’t conflate Bertie with those scavenging, winged-rodent ne’er-do-wells you trip over in Trafalgar Square, fighting over a hamburger bun, fouling foul statues.

Rather, Bertie, like me, is a child of the ‘burbs, who along with his wife Bertha, has ever since I’ve known him done his daily rounds of all the gardens in the HA3 postcode. Each spring B&B build a nest in the 40 foot fir tree in my garden, from where they produce their bairns.

Feel Better Nature Procrastination Things My Garden Has Taught Me


The shadow-side of patience is procrastination. A form of forestalment, with all the discomfort of inertia, torpidity, but none of the dopamine-fuelled incentivizers. As Hesiod, one of the earliest writers on the subject gravely remarks: “a man who puts off work is always at hand-grips with ruin”. Yes, sometimes, it really does feel like that.

So this morning, I sketch out my own HGWR (Hand Grips With Ruin) account in the form of two lists. More undone than to-do lists. One of these contains all the activities I’ve been putting off doing in the garden, for weeks on end, or even months, including building two or three compost bins out of discarded wooden pallets, hoiking the half ton of gravel sitting out in the front on the pavement ’round to the back, bulb-planting, and general weeding and mulching to get the garden ready for its winter snooze.

Feel Better Frustration Nature Patience Poetry Koan Things My Garden Has Taught Me


All things come to he who waits, is not entirely true. Even the Victorian poet Violet Fane who coined the phrase feels the need to qualify it in the next line of her poem:

‘Ah, all things come to those who wait,’
(I say these words to make me glad),
But something answers soft and sad,
‘They come, but often come too late.’

Perhaps the alternative motto, Good things come to those who wait, used to advertise slow-pouring foodstuffs like Guinness and ketchup, is a better one for the gardener.

Feel Better Generativity Nature Success Things My Garden Has Taught Me


Why did I ever doubt I’d get flowers from Jenny?

Aster Novi Belgi Jenny, who after three seasons of growth, is only just now, as you can see, on the verge of bursting forth with an abundance of semi-double, purple-pink flowers.

Being a “Michaelmas Daisy” (a “Fall Aster” in North American circles), perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised that just when sun-coaxing days are waning, Jenny come out to play.

What causes one plant to flower in July and another in October?

Feel Better Max Nature Self-care Things My Garden Has Taught Me

The Constant (Caring) Gardener

If you don’t water your plants carefully and consistently, especially those not embedded in earth, but exiled in pots and planters, they’ll soon let you know, becoming pallid, etiolated husks of their former selves. Take this poor wilty tomatillo plant on the left that greeted me a few mornings back: not a happy camper.

This is the garden’s way of saying to us: “In order to flourish, constant care is what I need. So please, assigned caregiver, try as best you can to develop this habit. For me, but also for you too, for all of us.”

Only the garden gives us such expeditious feedback. If we ignore other valued life projects or goals, they generally don’t let us know they’re on the verge of expiring in the way that plants do.

Feel Better Max Nature Things My Garden Has Taught Me

Garden companions: Monty Dog vs. Maxi-Max. What’s in a name?

If you’re a Gardener’s World fan, you probably tune in as much to see what a Golden Retriever called Nigel is up to at Longmeadow (mostly activities involving tennis balls) as what his owner Monty Don might be planting that week.

Apart from the creatures already living in the garden, a dog is the perfect garden companion. Alert, and interested in everything; alive to the smells, touch, tastes and sounds of the garden, but never critical of our planting schemes, or yakking on about mortgages or school fees when we just want to get on with the weeding.

Boredom Feel Better Hedonic Adaptation Mindfulness Mood Nature Things My Garden Has Taught Me

Green unseen

The other white in the garden, if white often registers for us as achromatic, or a no-thing, is green. Green is the the frame which supports and surrounds the star attraction. Seed packets pay scant pictorial attention to a flowering plant’s foliage, even though it’s the foliage we see as we wait for the culminating bloom. It is also foliage that remains after the flowers have died away. For when we buy a packet of seeds, we’re generally getting much more foliage than flower, and yet this is never acknowledged or accounted for.

Equally our lives are made up of foliage: eating, drinking, sleeping, grooming, defecating, going to the supermarket, listening to the radio, drinking cups of tea.

Boredom FOMO Mindfulness Nature Things My Garden Has Taught Me

Happiness Grows White

It’s about ten to ten in the evening and I’m standing in semi-darkness beating out the rhythm to a Jose Gonzalez song on the stone path with a piece of bamboo, eyes transfixed by a white spray of tiny flowers glinting out of the darkness like sequins on a velvety black evening dress.

Achillea ptarmica, I whisper, ‘The Pearl’”, AKA sneezewort, a moniker that doesn’t fit this moment or this plant, blearing all associations of jewellery to images of runny noses and slow-mo videos made by the Department of Health showing fluey folk shpritzing and spouting gobs and splashes of light-refracting mucous out of their mouths and noses.

Contingent Self-Esteem Nature Self-esteem Things My Garden Has Taught Me

If a flower blooms in a garden and no one (but you) is around to see it…

Gardeners take a lot of pride in their gardens. Especially in those plants we’ve grown from seed or a cutting. It’s a parental pride, a feeling of having been there at the moment when the thing before you was an almost-nothing, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it seed. It’s a pride also borne out of constant fussing and nurturing of our seedling as they matured from vulnerable almost-somethings to very needy small plants almost indistinguishable from the weeds around them, to finally the pleasures of foliage, buds and Bloomsday (not to be confused, though sometimes coinciding with that other Bloomsday on the 16th of June).

At the moment I have tiny salmon-pink Linum (flax) flowers growing across two beds, and picked daily for jam-jar floral arrangements. I must confess myself to be silly with satisfaction and swellheadedness about them. If I were on Instagram, or using Twitter, it’d be Linum-this, Linum-that, with links to photographs of the flowers from every imaginable angle all the day long. Even though, both in horticultural stature and cultivation skills, Linum are not particularly difficult to grow.

Anxiety Feel Better Freud Nature Things My Garden Has Taught Me

(Lettuce) Anxiety

Every day, the hundreds of fronds that make up the lettuce in my raised beds launch into a Lactuca Sativa version of that 80s stadium anthem by Simple Minds:

Don’t You Forget About Me
Don’t! Don’t! Don’t! Don’t!
Don’t You Forget About Me

The din of all that lettuce chanting in unison is deafening.

Evolutionary Psychology Feel Better Maximizers and Satisficers Nature The Paradox of Choice Things My Garden Has Taught Me

The Paradox of Choice

Having done a bit of a U-turn recently on the Cottage Garden ethos of ornamentals and edibles cheek by jowl, I’ve been clearing some sunny 3ft x 5 ft beds in the front garden with the express purpose of filling them with plants that’ll give me dizzying, eye-popping, heart-pumping highs.

That’s right: flowers, flowers, and more flowers – flowers being my legal high of choice. Which means I’ve needed to start thinking seriously about Hardy Annuals. The idea being that if I sow HA seed now on the brink of autumn, the Hardy Boys (and girls) will be able to toughen out the winter, setting down sturdy and substantial root systems in the Nietzchian school-of-war spirit (“what does not kill us makes us stronger”) and so be ready, come spring/early-summer, with eye-popping colour and beauty.

Attachment DBT Nature Things My Garden Has Taught Me


A few months ago I planted some Jasmine beesianum (I’ll call her Jasbee for short) near one of the the wooden trellises with the hope of having her “delicate pink trumpets and a heavenly scent” (oh the come-hither descriptions of plant packaging blurb!) complement the deep purple of summer delphiniums, Cosse Violette climbing beans and their pale, maize-yellow cousins, the Neckargolders. As the Jasmine plant was a wee one, I didn’t provide any support for her, just into the ground with lots of compost and good drainage, and off we go.

Some weeks later: fantastic growth spurts. Look how Jasbee had seemed to work out her own system of self-support with no help from me or anyone else. This consists of three or four stems winding themselves around each other, and creating a strong, banded together reinforcement by which to hoist herself a foot or two closer towards the sky.

Cleverly, this should also allow her at some point to hit a supportive branch or another taller plant through which she might be helped upwards.

Today, I see that these braided stems are starting to droop and fall back to the ground. Unattached, self-support systems it seems can only get us so far, both in the plant world and outside it. For a climber like Jasbee this is not a catastrophe, as I have no doubt that even without me and my garden wire, she would trail around in the dirt for a while until horizontally, as opposed to vertically, she’s able to reach the Aquilegia, delphiniums, and bean trellis growing close by.

Less so for us.

Anticipation Dopamine Nature Things My Garden Has Taught Me

The Pleasures of Anticipation

Yesterday, I woke up, looking forward, with possibly more ardour than anything else in my day to come, to digging a hole.

The hole would be required as part of the process of transplanting a large choisya ternata from the back garden where I felt it had been overloading the summer palate with too much yellow to the front, where it would be set against an infinite regress of concrete driveways, and where, I hoped, it would have a better chance of coming into its own.

Living A Valued Life Meaning Nature The Magus Things My Garden Has Taught Me

When the gardener is ready, the garden will appear

“When the pupil is ready, the master will appear,” is a saying sometimes attributed to the Buddha, when in fact it comes from the pen of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (Madame Blavatsky to the likes of you and me), occultist, guru/charalatan, co-founder of the New Age inceptive Theosophical Society, “the mother of modern spirituality” according to her biographer Gary Lachman.

If “The Master” stands for “that which the pupil needs”, then one could exchange the second part of the equation with almost anything we find life-enhancing: aromatherapy, knitting, hang-gliding, gardening. The master, the garden, or the knitting needles providing us with meaning, pleasure, direction. Some of the ingredients of “happiness” in philosophical/self-help parlance, or to put it in a way that I find more useful and also garden-aligned: some of the components of flourishing.

This is how it was for me. Up until my early 40s I had little interest in gardening. As long as the grass was mown, shrubs in the border, for me a garden was first and foremost a place to do non-gardening activities in. Something productive like studying, or writing, or abstemious meditation.

I’m not entirely sure what contributed to my readiness for gardening.